By Julia Kuehn
[Dr Julia Kuehn is an Associate Professor in the School of English, and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Her research interests lie in the literature and culture of the nineteenth century, especially popular writing.]
I own one of the (allegedly) 40+ million copies sold to date of E.L. James’s novel Fifty Shades of Grey. And, yes, I have read it. Of course I have: I am – if we trust my Ph.D. certificate – an expert in popular fiction and an expert in women’s writing. Admittedly, I am a Victorianist so the books I usually read were published over a century before James’s novel. Still, being the responsible academic that I am who feels a need to see how bestselling romantic fiction develops in the 20th and 21st centuries, I’ve also moved beyond my Victorians. I’ve read Elinor Glyn’s ‘risqué’ 1907 novel Three Weeks — in which they do ‘it’ on a tiger skin — plus dozens of contemporary Harlequin and Mills and Boon novelettes. Even the ones from the erotica series. Furthermore, as a student research assistant almost two decades ago I was involved in the Cambridge edition of D.H. Lawrence’s First and Second versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, reading about John Thomas and Lady Jane and their flower ornamentation many times over, proofs against typescript, typescript against manuscript …. I know about popular fiction and I know about romantic/ erotic fiction. So my subsequent observations come from a place of expertise and are the result of reading many bodice-rippers over many years.
Over the past few days, then, I have added further to this reading experience by consuming, at a fast pace which thankfully comes with the academic profession, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) and its two sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed (both 2012). (I have to admit that from the second volume the academic ability to read diagonally and selectively also came in very handy.)
Points: It would be all too easy to attack E.L. James’s Grey trilogy on account of a) its writing and b) its representation of gender. From the first volume onwards, the plot is weakly episodic, moving from sex scene to sex scene with inconsequential bridging episodes in between (in Fifty Shades that’s the fateful interview, ‘chance’ encounters in a hardware store, restaurants, graduation ceremony…). The dialogue is wooden at best: This is between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele during their first encounter, the interview for the student newspaper:
‘[I]f you work so hard, what do you do to chill out?’
‘Chill out?’ He smiles, revealing perfect white teeth. I stop breathing. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking.
‘Well, to “chill out”, as you put it — I sail, I fly, I indulge in various physical pursuits.’ He shifts in his chair. ‘I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.’ (11)
At worst – as in the many emails and text messages sent between Anastasia and Christian and in the breathless coital and post-coital pillow-talk – the dialogue is rather adolescent:
From: Christian Grey
Subject: You Didn’t Call the Cops
Date: May 27 2011 08:35
To: Anastasia Steele
‘Miss Steele, I am in a meeting discussing the futures market, if you’re really interested. For the record, you stood beside knowing what I was going to do [i.e. spanking]. You didn’t at any time ask me to stop – you didn’t use either safeword. You are an adult – you have choices. Quite frankly, I’m looking forward to the next time my palm is ringing with pain. You’re obviously not listening to the right part of your body. Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone – remember? Go to work.’ (295)
From: Anastasia Steele
Date: May 27 2011 08:36
To: Christian Grey
‘Have you sought therapy for your stalker tendencies?
You get the point. For the rest, I don’t think I can quote any breathless sex talk that is appropriate for this forum. Too many swearwords, too many references to the f* word, too many explicit physical details.
Furthermore, the constant interjections of the protagonist’s conscience (conveniently signalled by italic font for the inexperienced reader) are both repetitive and amateurish. The characters are neither dynamic nor are they round. In fact, Anastasia Steele (tough, enduring, her innocence is her weapon – get it?) who has such trouble eating in front of her virile dominator-boyfriend Christian Grey (fifty sexual proclivities/ shades of Grey – you get the gist) seems to be getting more and more angular and flatter and flatter as the story proceeds. Forgive the pun.
What is more, every feminist bone in my body aches as I see Ana Steele, the submissive, immerse herself deeper and deeper in the BDSM scene. And, no, she does not engage in bondage, hitting and other sado-masochistic experiences for her own sexual gratification — I’d have a hard time with it but some critics might argue that this is an expression of feminism — but first and foremost, and as the novel says at various points, she engages in these activities and experiments to please her master, called ‘Sir’, and make him stay with her, the inexperienced, insignificant recent English literature graduate.
Ah, and here we come to my actual rant and the real reason for my hardly suppressible anger. I can live with Points a) and b) about the lack of stylistic distinction in the trilogy and the incredibly conservative (and, in my eyes, disturbingly conservative) representations of gender and gender dynamics. This is a Cinderella story — Ana receives a makeover, complete with haircut, expensive dresses, Cartier jewellery and German-made cars — with a very messed-up Prince whose wallet is as large and bottomless as his sexual appetite and toy cabinet. (Incidentally, did you hear that there is an American sex toy company that is now producing erotic toys according to the descriptions and specifications mentioned in the Grey trilogy?) This is popular fiction; more sexually explicit than most but otherwise quite ‘normal’ in terms of plot, character, style. This is how the bestseller works. I know. I have written a Ph.D. dissertation about it. But back to my anger. If I can dispassionately and rationally analyse how Fifty Shades of Grey works as a popular novel and even warmly congratulate Mrs James for doing such a marvellous job in the bestselling department (i.e. take the core ingredients and spice it up), I cannot forgive her for the ways in which she abuses – here it comes –Tess of the D’Urbervilles. My Victorian heart is bleeding; my judgmental side – which is usually soundly asleep when I write about popular fiction which is, I believe, in no way inferior to ‘high’ fiction but simply serves a different purpose and readership – comes out, ready to strike. So here is 22-year old Ana Steele at the beginning of the novel, an English Literature major at Washington State University, with a special interest in Victorian fiction. (Good choice, by the way.) A virgin whose only romantic and sexual reference points are Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and, indeed, Tess Durbeyfield (225). All of this is fine: Ana writes her final 3-hour exam paper on said Tess (I’d love to know what the essay question was, actually.). Still acceptable. Christian Grey, knowing of this, trying to impress and being incredibly affluent at the tender age of 27 (he makes 100,000 USD a day or something like that), buys Ana a first edition of the Osgood & McIlvaine three-decker version of 1891, accompanied by a note which contains a quotation from Chapter 12: ‘Why didn’t you tell me [says Tess to her mother after having been seduced or possibly raped by Alec] there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks’. Nicely done and I am rather impressed with Mrs James’s knowledge and choice: getting a hold of the earlier serial publication in The Graphic might have taken Mr Grey time he doesn’t have; his libidinal clock was ticking so the three-decker copy had to do. But I’m losing my focus here. So all of this is fine but things go awfully pear-shaped when, suddenly, comparisons are drawn between Anastasia and Tess Durbeyfield, seduced, defiled and impregnated by Alec D’Urberville and idealised, condemned and loved by Angel Clare. At this point I have to interfere. James’s references to Ana’s Cheshire cat smile after her final exam, her flying close to the flame like Shelley’s moth, Christian being as chivalrous as Sir Gawain or Sir Lancelot but as jealous as Othello are annoying but clearly not in the same league of no-no’s. I can live with the latter but not with the way James is messing with Tess.
Tess’s weakness is her innocence and inexperience; she really didn’t know that there was danger in men-folk. Nobody told her and she hadn’t read the likes of Pamela. In contrast, Ana’s inexperience becomes her strength and weapon against Christian who simply cannot get his head around this 21st-century virgin whose knowledge and ideas about sex, romance and relationship comes from Austen and the Victorian novelists and who is, nevertheless, so willing to be tied up with him/ by him. Ana, in an attempt to return the expensive book gift wants to counter Christian’s warning about the danger of men-folk, i.e. himself, by quoting the passage where Angel gives Tess the boot, or, in flatmate Kate’s words, ‘where Angel Clare says fuck off’ (56). Here is an odd mix-up of Tess’s relationships. Theoretically, Ana’s quotation would have to be one that refers to Alec and Tess and come preferably from the scene where Tess finally leaves her seducer-assaulter. The situation with Angel is a completely different one: Christian Grey, too, seems confused that all of a sudden Ana sees him as Angel and not as Alec, which he (not an English graduate but a Yale Business school dropout) thinks would be the more likely reference.
But let us give Mrs James the benefit of the doubt and follow her surprising character analogy: Christian is a self-made man like Alec D’Urberville and with a name (by adoption) that isn’t really his own either. He gets a kick out of Ana’s inexperienced, uncorrupted nature at the same time that it baffles and troubles him; like Alec, he is sure to get sex when he wants it, waving expensive dresses and a luxurious flat at the intended. But as I said, interestingly, while Christian sees himself as Alec, Ana envisions him as Angel. The tortured soul, indeed, the one who puts Tess on a pedestal (with a much happier result in the Grey trilogy than in Tess), the one who discovers true love when it is almost too late. The one who mends his ways, begs for forgiveness. And the one who is, in fact, as cruel in his idealisation of Tess’s expected inexperience as Alec is in his abuse of Tess’s factual ignorance and sexual innocence.
If Mrs James might have a point here about Christian Grey being Alec-Angel (and Hardy wrote parallels into these two male characters), her Tess allusion contains one central flaw. Tess’s story is tragic while Ana is in utter control of her fate. For Tess (and the narrator) fate is inescapable: it is ‘as it should be’. Ana, however, follows a path of her choosing. No matter whether you think Ana’s choice brave or stupid, she is no Tess. A young woman in 2011 and 2012, she has the self-determination and the agency denied to the women in Hardy’s day. She has the freedom to do as she pleases. Tess didn’t. Imprisoned by society’s expectations and religion’s rules, her hands were tied. Not in the BDMS way but in the gallows fashion. Enjoy being a 21st-century woman, Miss Ana Steele – if you like and want to annoy me further, even spend more time emailing your boyfriend than actually doing any publishing-related work (don’t get me started – do these people ever find time to work between suggestive emailing?). You will (spoiler alert!!!) get your happy ending with marriage and two children in Fifty Shades Freed. Kinky sex games and BDMS continue to please ‘the master’ but you’ve ended like a true Mills and Boon heroine: the wild man has been somewhat tamed and turned into a family man and father, and you’ve secured him in marriage.
Enjoy being a bestselling author, Mrs James. You deserve it – your novels possess all the characteristics that make the reading experience both non-rational and obsessive-compulsive – that is, unless you’re a jaded professional like me who read this as part of her job description. And I have to admit that I simply adore you for admitting in public that the Grey trilogy is a full-on manifestation of your mid-life crisis. It so is. But stay away from Tess and any other Victorian references that don’t hold; it angers and upsets me on a very personal and academic level.